Tony Heywood in conversation with Ben Tufnell

Tony Heywood in conversation with Ben Tufnell

Landscapes, Gardens and Art
Tony Heywood in conversation with Ben Tufnell

Heywood & Condie: This Land is on display at The Atkinson 10 October 2020 – 27 March 2021

BT: The exhibition is really about Formby and your relationship to it. Can you tell me a little bit about your ongoing engagement with that place?

TH: Well, I was brought up in Formby from the age of about four and I have been returning to it for a long time. I still have friends up there. It’s a small village north of Liverpool and it’s quite cut off. The shoreline itself is quite amazing. It’s a landscape that is constantly evolving and changing. It’s called mobile dunes. There’s a forest, there’s a whole series of different environments. I spent years walking, sleeping, building fires there as a kid. So for me, it’s sort of a fully loaded place. Over the years, Alison & I have been making portraits of places in the UK, living installations, for various exhibitions and we wanted to do Formby.

BT: Were the installations always places that you knew very well?

TH: They were places that we had visited such as Tintagel and a place just outside the Jurassic coast. But we kept going back to Formby and decided that it would be really nice to spend more time there and to focus on one place and really get into it quite deeply. What we’re going to show in Southport is really where we are now with that. And I guess it’s a sort of mixture. It would’ve been the kind of installation that we normally do, with living plant materials etc., but because there’s no light in these rooms it’s become a sort of version of our experiences going into the woods, the beach, and this sort of transformation of material from those places.

BT: Do you feel your connection to that place is spiritual? Or is it more a kind of fascination with the physical properties of the location?

TH: Alison’s background is in botany & zoology, mine is in anthropology & archaeology. Ten years ago, we decided to shift the emphasis of the work, which was essentially representing nature & the countryside as de-natured, exaggerated, an airbrushed version of landscape, as a comment on the way that we’re living, fragmented and distanced. So, I invited two shamanic practitioners from Germany to come over and create some form of ritual around the objects I was using or around the garden I had created. And then I joined a retreat at the Sacred Trust in Dorset. And through this methodology I went into a deeper place than I ever had been before.

I had a revelatory experience that I couldn’t really explain. Essentially, I became quite interested in engaging with what you might call the spirit of the place or genius loci. I became quite interested in what it is that artists focus on when they engage with a piece of land or a landscape? How do they decide what it is they are going to focus on and how do they represent it? For me, it was trying to decide what it would be about a place that I would then seek to represent either sculpturally, or with a photograph, or as a garden. When you go into this trancelike state, things seem to present themselves from the landscape, or from the place. It felt a bit like divining the land in that way. Some people might call it ‘land-soul retrieval’. There’s a moment where you’re imagining things, and there’s a moment when something else takes over. There is a sense of actually becoming part of the place, and the more I’ve done this, the more I’ve found that the place itself has had a resonance. So, the recent poems and some of the drawings I have been doing have been done under this particular psychological condition, which is highly charged. And then I’ve been drawing, and I’ve made film and played it back, and played this particular beat, and you get into this rhythm that triggers memories. It’s not like curating a space. The space itself is speaking in a way that it doesn’t when you’re looking at it. It’s very different from a landscape, which is an edited, framed picture; I’ve become embodied in it.

BT: So it’s about being inside the landscape in some way?

TH: I think the word is ‘inside’! It’s feeling that I’m part of something and so with some of the drawings there’s no scale. There might be a tiny little scribble that’s related to a tin can on the floor or to a larger expanse which could be a panorama or a vista. But they all become mixed up.

BT: Do you think that because of your personal history with Formby that when you use this process there’s a richer or a deeper response?

TH: Well I think it’s a way of trying to cut out the editing process and I think that’s what’s very satisfying about it. It feels very wholesome. It feels definitely of the moment. I’m not bringing in a preloaded series of things.

BT: Is your ambition that a member of the public going into the show will be able to recognize a version of Formby? What are you hoping that they will find?

TH: I guess, it’s a palimpsest, layers of things. I’m very interested in creating immersive environments in which you feel that you’re a part of the idea of the garden, in some form or another. When this opportunity came about to show in these three rooms, I wanted to use material from the beach and from the woods, from nature, but I’m also now starting to weave in materials from the fairground that I used to go to, from shops in the village. I’m trying to make it more timeless; a mixture of my time now and with memory.

BT: So it’s also a kind of autobiography?

TH: Yes. And I’ve incorporated a cymbal from a drum kit I had in the early 70s that’s going to be hanging there that visitors will be free to hit. I just love that idea of that sound vibration coming out. And that will be mixed in with some paintings combined with found material from the beach. There will be huge wall-based pieces. I’m going to flatten out the wall with a selection of materials to create a colour-field backdrop.

That’ll provide a background. So the audience, will see quite a fragmented portrait. A lot of the wall pieces will have jam jars with plants in them, cuttings, there will be a whole mish mash. Of course, Alison has been making these clothes and stitching to them thousands of shells from the beach that we’ve been wearing and photographing. It’s this constant feedback loop.

BT: Do you think this desire to make an immersive experience is related to your career as a gardener? It does strike me that gardening is always immersive, that you go into a space and there’s always an interaction with the elements and it’s not static in the way that a gallery often is. I wonder if you’re trying to bring something of that into the space?

TH: There is an element of that, yes. I’ve made many traditional gardens that are formally, aesthetically, and colorfully pleasing. A lot of our horticultural installations are in fact a mixture of plants and found and fabricated inorganic materials. Again, there’s this disjunction but there is also this feeling of time that’s in there. I’m very interested in the idea that the viewer can sit inside these installations and become completely immersed. Having the walls of the gallery full of these materials is an attempt to create a sort of half-living environment. There’s the idea that you’re watching or looking at layers of things like you are when you’re looking in a garden. You can zoom into a tiny flower, or you can go out and look at it from a framed perspective. So it’s very much on top of you, and quite often the installations that I build are like that, you’re almost thrown in. Like inside the brain of a computer; there’s lots of things flashing, lots of things happening at the same time.

BT: Because a garden is always in the process of changing isn’t it?

TH: Well, that mutability is important.

BT: Presumably your horticultural installations are always changing but what you’re doing in Southport can’t be.

TH: It can’t be, but the wall-based works will have some plant-based materials in them. They will grow. There’s a small piece that’s currently being shown at the Royal Society of Sculptors where I’ve been going around, finding local debris, taping it up on a wall, gluing a jam jar, putting a living thing in it and just leaving it. It might be there for two or three days. Now the idea that that piece will change, wither and die is really quite important. There are things that are fixed and things that change, and I think that tension is at the heart of what a garden is, this constant evolution. And daily, because its outside in a garden, you’ve got wind, light, scent. Certainly, over this COVID period, I’ve never spent as much time in my own garden sitting and looking and watching those tiny little changes that normally I might not see for weeks.

BT: It was wonderfully reassuring in a way, that in those early days in the lockdown, when everything was silently terrifying and unknown, to see green shoots coming and life continuing.

TH: This idea of ‘slow time’ leads into that. And the idea of time has been really important to me in the exhibition in that I’ve sort of gone back into childhood time. The beach is disappearing at something like 10m per year, so I see dunes, hills, and formations in the woodlands that are now being completely taken over by bramble; these things have died, the environment has changed, I’ve filmed this, I’ve drawn this. I think part of me in this exhibition has been resurrecting some of those places. I know I’m doing it, and some of the sketches and drawings will be of aspects of that woodland that aren’t there anymore. I think that’s quite strange.

BT: A sculptor deals with objects in space and implicit in that is an aspect of time: in order to fully apprehend the work you have to move around it, you’re activating space and time and those are things that are happening while making a garden or even just being in a garden. So all those things apply equally and it does seem like a false distinction to say that this is art, and this is gardening.

TH: Yes, it does. If we look at the dried rubble and moss landscapes of Ryoan-ji Temple, or take the English landscape garden, they are gardens that are communicating ideas. But where does the meaning come from? Meaning can be personal, can be social, or you can have a garden that relates to where you have been or the food you have eaten. Depending on your culture you can gain meaning from that. Those gardens, whether it’s been driven by the aesthetics of the day or the discussion of whether it’s the picturesque motif or a sublime moment that is being revisited in a landscape form, or in a Chinese temple garden it might be to do with the moon viewing, those particular gardens all tie themselves into the painterly and poetic traditions of the time, but English domestic gardens don’t do that, they’re of a slightly different tradition. I think not all gardens aspire to be fine artworks and not all gardeners aspire to be thought of like that.

BT: For many people a garden is just a space to sit in, to relax in.

TH: And that is very different from how people have discussed the aesthetics of the garden, from the debates that would have gone on about taste and the picturesque, the sublime, and the beautiful, to the concept that gardens should have a rough edge, be more truthful to real nature that people like Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight would have argued about in the late eighteenth century. There were many different sensibilities and thoughts about how to re-present nature and these ideas were informed by political theory, aesthetic philosophy, and even scientific principles relating to the ordering of our place in the cosmos. In this respect gardens can be thought of as cultural vehicles, created to communicate ideas, they have messages encoded, they can be read so to speak. Often the English landscape garden of the eighteenth century had emblematic content, it had an agenda attempting to try and say different things with a political motive. I’m trying to think of contemporary gardens that have such an agenda. You have Charles Jencks’s garden of cosmic speculation or Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta. But I see those as quite like a dinky version of an English landscape garden but they clearly have an agenda above and beyond the purely aesthetic in that they are conveying ideas using the garden as a medium.

BT: I was quite surprised by how intimate Little Sparta was. Though as you get to the boundary it suddenly opens out and you see things just sort of disperse into a wider landscape. As I remember you don’t really come to an edge.

TH: You don’t. Now for me that’s a very interesting garden. He is acknowledging that language or history always interfere with nature, or he’s interfering with nature. It’s almost like pre-encoding: there is a semiotic of that garden, that is very different to a garden that you’d look at in terms of formal qualities. That particular garden is always pushed to the forefront when there’s a discussion about gardens and art. What do you think about that? Has it got one specific meaning?

BT: I was just very struck by the fact that it is almost a series of little vignettes which, taken together, add up to something much greater. And I was kind of surprised by how light a lot of his interventions were. There’s a lot of humour at work in that garden.

TH: There is humour. But I also felt quite bombarded, I felt quite hectored by this insistence. You go from one thing to the other and although it was quite light, the constant iteration of ideas sort of got in the way, I felt it was cluttered, I always find text very hard in a garden.

BT: Well it turns the garden into the backdrop really, that was the other thing I felt. You read the texts and the garden is the background. The gardening itself wasn’t really artistic. The artwork was inserted into the garden.

TH: That’s very different from a garden that’s seen as a complete artwork. Phrases are placed in nature and you go along from one event to another. A bit like the way you would walk around an English garden.

BT: There’s a choreography isn’t there? You are choreographed by the garden.

TH: Yes! And in some gardens, you’re allowed to move in different directions. At Leasowes, which is a garden outside Birmingham, it is very strict, there is a route you have to follow. According to the book there’s a right and wrong way. But without being given a guidebook or without being knowledgeable about the politics of the day you might well not know how to read that garden. Perhaps the best examples of the English landscape garden tradition would be Stowe or Painshill

BT: Is the same not true of an exhibition? In your mind you must have an ideal way for a viewer to go through your exhibition, you’ll be choreographing the visitors.

TH: Well, that is interesting. In the rooms in Southport, it’s three boxed rooms with three entrances. I want the feeling that you’re entering into an environment and while you can take it in a glance, actually you have to try to look in and around it. I haven’t had the liberty to build a landscape that’s the scale and size of a great estate where you can choreograph that movement. More often, you are thrown into something and you’re completely surrounded by it.
Having said that, with regards Formby beach (and you know I talk about the garden in an almost expanded sense, that the beach is the garden), the poem was a way of taking me through a route where you were choreographed, and if you read it, you are taken through a story.

BT: So you could map that poem onto the landscape?

TH: Absolutely. I’ve made a film of it that takes you through the route.

BT: As an artist working with living plants but also with inorganic, manmade, found materials, I’m wondering, is there a kind of ecological agenda in the work at all? I mean it’s kind of implicit because you’re working with those materials, but is that something you have any interest in foregrounding?

TH: I guess so. First and foremost, I quite like to think of both plants, wood, steel, plastics, all as equal materials.

BT: There’s no hierarchy?

TH: No, because by choosing to do a portrait of a place as a garden, which is essentially what I’ve been doing, I am dealing with processes of change and decay. I’m selecting specific plant species from a place and then carving out of wood or foam a shape that relates to the geography or geology of that place, incorporating rocks and materials that are in the hinterland of the place that might have resonated with me. I might well carve shapes out of metal that relate to a particular wave or pattern of the landscape. So there’s this weird intermeshing of the landscape, of the organic, and the inorganic. And there’s a choice, when I make something, whether to just use polished aluminium or something that won’t alter, or I might use paper or something that might rot. I might then seed the paper. And if I want to see a rapid change, I might well use cardboard and there might be plants, and you might see some germination of cress or something, and at the same time you won’t see the weathering of metal but if it’s there for a long period of time I can choose to let rust become a part of it.

Thinking about organic and inorganic, we made a piece at Chelsea which was an abstract portrait of Formby. We got dead pines from Formby that the National Trust let me have. We got an endless number of needles and re-glued them back on and then airbrushed them in. We planted the garden up with gorse, evening primrose, willow, some of the heather species that were there, working with a plantswoman named Linda Laxton who grows wildflowers of the British Isles. So we planted this sort of abstract portrait. It was full of the most delicate and finely tuned weave of plant species. Then after I finished in Chelsea, we were asked to do something in the Old Vic Tunnels, and we took that entire garden and put it in the tunnels. And then working with NIAB (National Institution of Agronomy and Botany) in Cambridgeshire, working with a department that works with rhizomatous and fungal spores, we coated the garden in this sort of agar jelly, and closed up the tunnels from June to October. I don’t know if you’ve been in some of those old tunnels, they’re really damp and rank. When we opened it, we called it ‘The Majesty’. It was a sort of faded, jewelled concoction, I’m not joking, it was quite a foetid mass of spores. We had to do a risk assessment for the public to be let in. You had to wear a mask to go in and sign a disclaimer because of the spore content. It was this sort of faded version of a piece of landscape reflected in this pool of water that had gathered there over six months. We let the whole thing collapse. Essentially the organic had colonized the inorganic metal elements. Then we got someone to perform in there, and we did a recording of a brass band from Chelsea. We recorded that and mixed it in with the sound of the trains running, and played the whole thing back in slow-mo. So it was a real mixture of this land and a fading version of this land. So when you talk about outside going inside, and the organic and inorganic, in a way, the garden can compress the two. There is no distinction. The outside, the inside, the organic and the inorganic all meld into one lump. You asked me the question about the organic and the inorganic and this project sort of conflates that. And I quite like the idea that everything is material. But when you’re making these things with organic and inorganic components it is the mixture of the organic which would be the living quotient of the piece, and the inorganic, which would be objects and things, that might resonate with the place. It becomes like a rich sign system.

BT: When one thinks about gardens and gardening so much of it is about plants and the difference between this species and that species and getting the best plant you can get under the conditions of a certain place, whereas you seem to be focussed on something quite different.

TH: I guess I’m using plants in a different way. I’m using plants as just another tool. But don’t forget about painting. Think early Renaissance painting, think about the hidden language of flowers. There would be religious symbolism and you’d have to decode that. Plants can represent a certain area, they can represent an ecology, they can represent a certain colour, they can be emblematic. I also think about the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious, that a simple group of trees can be symbolic of a wood. We’re going back to this sort of biophiliac idea of grasslands, that a pond represents a lake or the sea. Actually, I find that the ingredients of even a small domestic landscape are tapping back into deep pools of whatever, back to the primeval forest, to the grasslands, to the savanna.

BT: Is this going back to your anthropological training?

TH: I guess it is in a way. Many people have written about this, like Jay Appleton or Allen Carlson’s books on environmental aesthetics and Kaplans habitat theory. We have a predisposition to preferring a savanna-like landscape. We were dropping out of the trees and wanting to be able to be in a place of refuge and to see the prospect. We were hunters and gatherers and it led to a biological predisposition to preferring things, and the English landscape garden pretty much complies to that. I think when we’re looking at landscape now, we’ve moved on from the idea of landscape as a romantic thing. Now it’s encoded in media TV, film etc. Landscapes are scary, they are almost scientific, or there’s the horror landscape, the zoomed in microscopic landscape the holiday backdrop shot of landscape. Everything becomes a complete mixture. We’re used to seeing the fast-moving changing landscape now. Driving past in a train, in a car, on a plane, we’re just getting glimpses of things. I’m interested in making landscapes that represent that cut-and-paste digitised period we’re in. What is a landscape now? Well to most of us it’s a very disjointed and brightly coloured, highly airbrushed sense of reality. This whole debate of what is nature is still under discussion in our image-soaked lives. In the world of computer games nature has been reinvented almost.

BT: Let’s talk about colour. Whenever I see your work, I’m really struck by the intensity of the colours. And often they seem to me to look quite unnatural. So again, we’re talking organic and inorganic, natural colours and artificial colours, and treating them all in the same way perhaps. Is that fair?

TH: That’s the thing, when you zoom in on something, on one level there is an exactitude to trying to find the colour of a flower, the colour of a particular green. I’m thinking of gardeners and colour now, and how it varies and how different artists and gardeners deal with colour. For someone like Gertrude Jekyll – I’m sure you’ve heard of her relationship to the colour wheel – it would almost be like a folding out of the colour wheel where complementary then harmonious colours go into crescendos. Or someone like Monet, or Emil Nolde, who had a garden that he worked from. Nolde’s blocks of massive intense splashes of colour are supposed to be representative of nature, but really, they’re not. It’s an experience, it’s an emotional impact that nature has. I don’t know whether Monet would have said the same thing.

BT: He planted a garden in order to paint it.

TH: And what emotion was he trying to capture? Was he trying to capture the personal emotions he felt? He was a keen gardener. The Latour-Marliac hybrid water lilies that were the most intense reds, you know he waited for them and brought them in. And you’d see that intensity and splash of colour in his work. The use of colour now for me is very much to do with that optical saturation that you get when you look at things on a phone. This digital age has resulted in something that is a retinal burn. A lot of Pop art is the intensifying of that sort of colour experience. I really like that sort of colour in my gardens. Gold or purple, it might relate to a Cadbury’s bar or to Silk Cut.

BT: So those pop references are there in the mix?

TH: Yes. It’s about nature and culture mixed up together. I was talking with you about Timothy Morton’s Object Oriented Ontology, where everything is seen as being of equal value, and you mention the organic and the inorganic, the intensity of colour, the materials I’m using. I’m experiencing a very artificial world, but also I’m living a natural life.

BT: I’ve got a picture in my mind now of you in your garden surrounded by flowers and in one hand you’ve got a chocolate bar with a purple and gold wrapper and in the other you’ve got your iPhone and you’ve got all of those colours from the flowers and you’ve got those artificial things and it’s all kind of flooding in together.

TH: In that respect, think of a gardener who is just trying to root themselves and retreat into the soil, to some bucolic or pastoral idea of cutting yourself off from the world. Our installations are very much not like that, they’re about grabbing hold of the world as it is, machinery and all, and welding it in with the soil and roots. I think that’s a more truthful way of articulating my relationship with the world.

BT: It’s a very, very different kind of approach. In many of the early manifestations of Land Art, there’s a sense not of not retreat but it was time when the ‘back to the land’ ethos was prevalent. You’re seem to be rejecting any notion of going ‘back to the land’ and saying instead, this is where we are now.

TH: Yes. I guess. Of course, with a lot of the Land artists, there’s that idea of going out there and creating something in nature. They are interested in the materiality of land but they’re also making structures, like Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, that are connecting with deep cosmological time, light, the stars. They’re also inserting into raw nature something that’s quite artificial.

BT: I think the Americans actually really embraced that idea. You know, Smithson wrote of Robert Morris: ‘Instead of using a paintbrush to make his art, Robert Morris would like to use a bulldozer.’

TH: Did he mean that in an arrogant way? As if he had disregard for the earth?

BT: Well it comes across that way, particularly to a European sensibility. Here there’s a way of doing things where its less about dominating the land. So, historically there have always been these opposing positions between the artists in America and Europeans like David Nash and Richard long who were very light of touch, dealing with organic materials, not making permanent gestures. So Smithson’s statement about Morris does come across as a bit aggressive. But America is a different place and there’s a different relationship with the land.

TH: But what caught me is this idea of being immersed in nature. There’s a commonality in that they’re all going out and wanting to be inside something. You mentioned being inside and outside and in Malcom Andrew’s book on landscape painting, Landscape and Western Art, he discusses the idea that land is the raw thing and that it is converted into landscape; it’s a constant process that we’re all doing. We’re all just converting it as we speak, landscape images breed landscape images.

A cultural geographer like Stuart Cosgrove would talk about landscape as an invention of the capitalist economy. That those who are inside it have no notion of landscape. I think of Land artists who are wanting to return to that idea that they’re in it, that they’re inside something. There’s a gradual move away from the romantic notion. Think of Ruskin discussing representations of nature and landscape. Should we do it through close scientific scrutiny? Or should we do it through emotional truthfulness? So, Land artists have almost removed themselves from culture, they’ve gone into the wilderness and become part of it. I’m thinking of Giuseppe Penone’s hand on the tree or Anna Mendieta’s self-burial. And, of course, Keith Arnatt’s works on the beach at Formby. And yet today we have this idea that we are custodians of nature. Now nature needs us. We are inside nature now, and actually having to look after it. It’s very different from the 70s where we were destroying. Now we’ve seen the damage we’ve done, we’re all too aware. It’s almost like landscape as a framed entity has finished. It’s over with, we’re inside it now. We have to live in this world of technology, plants, and seeing it all as equal I think is quite honest. It’s a starting point to an understanding of the interconnectedness we have with all things, which is Morton’s point. We won’t put nature and culture into this dialectical opposition, this inside/outside, organic/inorganic opposition. It’s quite healthy not to see that, I think.

Heywood & Condie: This Land is on display at The Atkinson 10 October 2020 – 27 March 2021

Posted on 23 October 2020 under Exhibition, General news

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